In 2019, I endured a long, humiliating, and costly experience with Swiss Customs. Because of the article we published earlier today about traveling with watches, we decided to bring this older article back into the spotlight as well. Although Baselworld does not exist anymore, the topic is still valid! Be very careful when you cross borders with your precious watches.

Baselworld 2019 — the last watch fair in Basel

When attending Baselworld, we tend to stay over the border in either Germany or France. The costly hotel rooms in Basel along with pricey restaurants often lead us to roomier and more modern lodging across the border. That leads to a somewhat annoying train ride every morning and a corresponding commute back each night from the show. But it’s part of the gig, and it usually runs smoothly.  After 5+ years of attending the show, though, I had an incredibly painful run-in with Swiss Customs. Here’s my tale. Hopefully, my experience will help you avoid the same.

A $4,000 experience with Swiss Customs

If you’re at all familiar with commuting into Basel from Germany, you may be aware that most trains lead into Badischer Bahnhof. It’s an older train station that was, among other things, known to us as the site of the annual Nomos dinner each Wednesday during Baselworld. For me, though, it will forever live in my memory as the site of a stop by Swiss Customs where I later handed over about $4,000.

Three and a half hours…

I commuted into Baselworld 2019 on my 10-minute train and walked off the track, down the stairs into the hallway. One crosses through some pillars, and that’s the official border into Switzerland. This past Thursday at around 9:00 AM, there happened to be a border “Zoll” guard standing there. He approached and asked where I was going, and I mentioned Baselworld. Then he asked if I had anything to declare, and I said, that I didn’t. I simply did not think declaring my personal watches was necessary. Clearly, that was a mistake.

He then asked if I had any commercial goods worth over CHF 300, and, again, I replied, “No” (again, my personal watches). He then asked what I had in my bag, and I mentioned my laptop, my camera, and my personal watches. Upon the mention of watches, his eyes lit up, and he asked me to come in for a bag inspection. Upon discovering my five vintage watches, three and a half hours of waiting, a transfer via van, questioning, paperwork, and a huge payment to Swiss Customs ensued.

My personal watches = commercial goods

Now, one thing I should say is that no one was ever rude to me. They simply had no interest in explanations. Essentially, because I was carrying more than one watch, failed to voluntarily declare them, then stated that I didn’t have “commercial” goods worth more than CHF 300, I was later due to pay a fine of CHF 1,500 and 7.7% VAT for the value of my watches.

When I explained that I was a watch enthusiast and that I was carrying vintage pieces — a couple of Breitlings to bring to a brand dinner and to photograph next to the new 1959 Navitimer Re-Edition — they simply could not fathom why I would bring watches to such an event. It was as if a huge watch-related event wasn’t occurring 300 meters away (perhaps Baselworld hasn’t been a mob scene this year, but it wasn’t that quiet) and seemingly odd that so many of us were coming in to support the country’s major industry aside from banking.

Google searches to determine the value

Ah, but there was more with Swiss Customs. I happened to be carrying a rather inexpensive Heuer stopwatch to show a friend. Unfortunately, it’s from the 1940s and contained an insignia from a certain part of the German military during WWII. This only escalated the situation. All kinds of rules about what to do with propaganda materials and right-wing paraphernalia were printed out. Strangely, the officials never brought any of this up. No, Swiss Customs cared because they felt this was a very expensive piece and that I was being dishonest about its value. They firmly believed that this piece with a dubious history was invaluable, and they spent a lot of time trying to research it to prove this. Later, I was finally able to show that I paid roughly €1,100 for it a few weeks before.

After an hour or more at the Bahnhof with Swiss Customs, they drove me in a van — I wasn’t in cuffs — a few minutes away to the customs office at the “Messe” or convention center next to Baselworld 2019. It was here that they told me the staff was familiar with watches and would be able to assess fair value to charge me my 7.7% and process the additional CHF 1,500 payment. I sat in a room with a small, round table in the kitchen area of the office while they started to pull together the paperwork.

They asked me to write down when I bought my watches, how much I paid, and what they’re worth now. I was fair with the values, and, ultimately, Swiss Customs agreed with them. However, I did watch them scroll through Google trying to look up 50–60-year-old watches to ascertain current market prices. I saw all kinds of things come up during the search (modern watches), and perhaps they weren’t so familiar with older personal goods. In the end, they determined that I owed roughly CHF 3,000 in VAT for my five watches and the stopwatch.

An intense process to get a VAT refund

In case you’re wondering, Swiss Customs happily accepts Mastercard or cash. However, I am sure that carrying that kind of money around would’ve caused all sorts of additional suspicion. I asked how I could claim my VAT back upon leaving the country, and things became even more interesting.

First, I’d need to go online and fill out a form stating that I wished to export my watches out of Switzerland — typing in all the info on the VAT form that declared the importation of my goods — and getting a system-generated code to use at a later time. Then, because my goods were classified as commercial, I could happily bring my car over from Germany along the autobahn. On the way in, I’d need to once again stop at Swiss Customs to show them my newly declared goods, with hand-scribbled descriptions of my watches included. I can only imagine the hours of waiting and then having another agent trying to decide if the five described watches were the ones that I was actually bringing in.

Then I’d pull a U-turn and get into line between all the huge trucks waiting to leave Switzerland and export their goods. This office is “conveniently” open from 8:00 to 11:30 AM and then from 1:30 to 5:00 PM Monday through Friday. I’d go into Swiss Customs, reference my export code, and perhaps show them the watches yet again to officially take them out of Switzerland for good. Would my 7.7% then be returned to my bank account? Surely, you jest. I’d then need to write a letter to Swiss Customs explaining my situation, and perhaps they’d see it fit to return my 3,000. But there’s more…

A double whammy

After leaving Swiss Customs in my car, I’d need to drive past German Customs, and there’s a 99% chance they’d stop me after seeing me come out of the Swiss offices. And why is that? Because Germany would want to squeeze the 19% duty out of me to bring my watches back into the country. Now, I live in and pay taxes in Germany, so perhaps a customs officer there would be slightly more understanding. Still, regaining my money isn’t exactly easy.

Declare everything — better yet, leave it at home

Regarding some other things that I learned from Swiss Customs… First, you should always declare everything. So, whether you’re heading to Baselworld or a watch get-together, you should stop in and declare your watches. Yes, you should go in and let Switzerland know that your grandfather’s watch is coming in. If the officials decide not to charge you VAT, which is a possibility, they could still charge a “deposit”. How, when, and how long it would to get that back was a mystery that I failed to decode. It all just seemed rather arbitrary.

I asked about my camera and if I needed to declare it. The officials told that taking pictures is okay, but if you’re there to make money with pictures, you should declare. Finally, when I mentioned that just about every journalist that I knew brought in multiple watches because we don’t like leaving them in a hotel or Airbnb, we attend enthusiast dinners, and we enjoy showing each other our watches, they told me, “Yes, we control this, and you simply got caught.” That was comforting.

Others were stopped when asked if attending Baselworld

If you think this story of Swiss Customs questioning me is an isolated case, think again. The same office stopped us the following day, and I saw another soul being questioned again two days later. One of our team members came in through a different station, and when he got off the train, a Swiss Customs officer asked him, “Are you going to Baselworld?” and he said yes. The officer pulled him to the side and went through his bag, stopping to look through a small box with Omega gloves inside to ensure no watches existed.

I then spoke to a member of the Hodinkee team who was approached upon landing, and he was asked the same. When I told my story, people (including Swiss friends) were surprised that Swiss Customs chose to do this with me. They all asked the same thing: “How could they do this with your personal property?” Well, it seems they can.

Be warned…

At the end of the day, I essentially conceded that I’m never going to get that $4,000+ back. I’ll never bring more than the watch that’s on my wrist into Switzerland again. I’d suggest you consider the same unless you work through a process of pre-registering your goods or wish to enjoy what seems to be an unpredictable outcome with Swiss Customs. Now, I am sure that customs officials would read this and tell me that I was in the wrong and that there are very clear rules. Perhaps they’re right, but I’d disagree with the latter as I certainly know those who were checked and let off. In the end, it was a long and humiliating process that left a really bitter taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, it’s a taste that I will forever associate with Switzerland and Baselworld. Consider yourself warned…


Since publishing this article, we’ve received quite a bit of correspondence, both publicly and privately. The vast majority of the feedback has been supportive, but there have been detractors. Some felt that I was being extremely naive and offensive towards Swiss Customs and even the country! First and foremost, I tried to maintain an even keel, but I am sure some of my frustration has leaked out. I could have waited until time healed the wound, but I honestly wanted to tell my story — simply what occurred — while people are still at Baselworld.  If even one person decides to pack only one watch tomorrow to avoid making the mistake (yes, I made the mistake) that I did, then I’m pleased. If you do decide to bring things in, declare to take away any concerns!  I have learned my lesson!

Regarding disdain for Switzerland, that’s a bit over the top and couldn’t be further from the truth. Second, one has said that we are abusing our “vast media power” with this article. We’ll simply have to agree to disagree. We feel it’s important to inform our readers about what can happen when you arrive in Switzerland with excitement for your first — or 20th — Baselworld to meet up with friends to attend dinners, meetings, get-togethers, and so on if you don’t declare your goods. Not sharing would have been the bigger abuse.  Finally, for those who have been supportive, thanks so much. We’re happy to close this topic now and get back to what we think we do best, and that’s giving you great watch-related content.

*This article was published first on March 24th, 2019, here on Fratello. Ever since this happened to Mike, we have traveled lightly and more carefully when going over the border in Switzerland for Watches and Wonders and brand events. It was an expensive and wise lesson. Don’t bring more than one watch unless you go through the process of getting carnet forms and so on.